Sunday, April 03, 2016

Kish v. Sobchak Estate: Standard of Appellate Review of Findings of Fact in Wills Variation Summary Trial

In the recent decision in Kish v. Sobchak Estate, 2016 BCCA 65, a five-judge panel of the British Columbia Court of Appeal considered how much deference the Court of Appeal is required to give a Supreme Court Judge’s finding of facts in a wills variation case decided on the basis of affidavit evidence, as opposed to a conventional trial where witnesses testify in person.  (This is my second post on this case. I reviewed the facts and the judgement in my previous post. )

An appeal is different from a trial. It is not a rehearing. Rather the appellant has to persuade the appellate court that the trial judge made an error, and that the error was of a nature such that the appellate court should interfere by either changing the decision or ordering a retrial.

The amount of deference the appellate court is required to give the trail judge’s decision may vary depending on the nature of the alleged error. It may be one of a question of law, a finding of fact, an inference of fact or it may involve the exercise of discretion. Some findings are said to be a mixed questions of law and fact.

An appellate court is not required to defer to a trial judge’s rulings on pure questions of law. If the appellate court holds that the judge has made an error of law, the appellate court will substitute its decision.

But generally greater deference is required for findings of fact. The leading case in Canada is a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Housen v. Nikolaisen, in which the Supreme Court of Canada reaffirmed that an appellate court may only interfere with a finding of fact if the court finds that the trial judge made a “palpable and overriding error.” Another formulation of the test is that the trial judge’s finding of facts will be upheld if there is some evidence to support it.

The reasons for this degree of deference on findings of fact were set out by Justices Iacobucci and Major in the majority judgment as follows:

15                               In our view, the numerous bases for deferring to the findings of fact of the trial judge which are discussed in the above authorities can be grouped into the following three basic principles.
(1)   Limiting the Number, Length and Cost of Appeals
16                               Given the scarcity of judicial resources, setting limits on the scope of judicial review is to be encouraged.  Deferring to a trial judge’s findings of fact not only serves this end, but does so on a principled basis.  Substantial resources are allocated to trial courts for the purpose of assessing facts.  To allow for wide-ranging review of the trial judge’s factual findings results in needless duplication of judicial proceedings with little, if any improvement in the result.  In addition, lengthy appeals prejudice litigants with fewer resources, and frustrate the goal of providing an efficient and effective remedy for the parties.
(2)  Promoting the Autonomy and Integrity of Trial Proceedings
17                               The presumption underlying the structure of our court system is that a trial judge is competent to decide the case before him or her, and that a just and fair outcome will result from the trial process.  Frequent and unlimited appeals would undermine this presumption and weaken public confidence in the trial process.  An appeal is the exception rather than the rule. 
 (3)   Recognizing the Expertise of the Trial Judge and His or Her Advantageous Position
18                               The trial judge is better situated to make factual findings owing to his or her extensive exposure to the evidence, the advantage of hearing testimony viva voce, and the judge’s familiarity with the case as a whole.  Because the primary role of the trial judge is to weigh and assess voluminous quantities of evidence, the expertise and insight of the trial judge in this area should be respected.

In Kish, the Court of Appeal considered the application of the requirement in Housen that an appellate court defer to a trial judge’s finding of facts to a wills variation case that was decided on the basis of affidavit evidence rather than oral testimony. Although usually three judges hear an appeal in the Court of Appeal, the Court may sit as a five-judge panel if requested in order to reconsider prior decisions.

One rationale for deferring to a trial judge’s finding of facts is that the trial judge has the advantage of seeing and hearing the witnesses, and an appellate court does not. But it is fairly common for the Supreme Court of British Columbia to hear summary trials in which the evidence is put in by affidavits, and witnesses either do not testify in the presence of the judge at all, or there is more limited oral testimony. In a previous post, I reviewed the number of summary versus conventional trials in reported decisions over a three year period and found that just under half were summary trials. In a summary trial without oral testimony, it could be argued that the trial judge does not have an advantage in making findings of fact over an appellate court which may review all of the written evidence.

The Court of Appeal also considered the case authorities dealing with the standard of review of the exercise of the trial judge’s exercise of discretion when varying a will to make the provision he or she considers “adequate, just and equitable in the circumstances.” In a Supreme Court of Canada case, Swain v. Dennison [1967] S.C.R. 7, the Court held that the British Columbia Court of Appeal may “reach its own conclusion as to the discretion properly to be exercised.” Based on the Swain decision, there appears to be a lower standard of review of an exercise of a trial judge’s discretion when varying a will than when a judge exercises discretion in other areas of law.

Madam Justice Newbury, writing for the Court of Appeal, distinguished between a finding of fact and the exercise of discretion. The judge does not exercise discretion in finding facts. The judge may have discretion in choosing a course of action once he or she has made findings of fact.

She considered whether a lower standard should be applied in making findings of fact if the trial proceeded summarily based on affidavit evidence in a wills variation case than if the trial was a conventional trial based on oral testimony.  The Court of Appeal held that the same standard for findings of fact applies in both cases: palpable and overriding error. She wrote:

[43]        Drawing all of these threads together, there are two possible approaches to the relationship between Housen on the one hand, and Swain/Price on the other in appeals from summary trial judgments under the WVA:
(a)      All “findings” of a trial judge, including those that involve the exercise of judicial discretion, are reviewable by this court without deference, except findings based on oral testimony, which are subject to the Housen standard; or
(b)      A trial judge’s exercise of discretion may be reviewed without deference, but all findings of fact (whether based on oral or affidavit evidence) are subject to theHousen standard.
[44]        In my view, the second alternative is the preferable one. It is simpler than the first and does not require this court to determine in every case whether a trial judge’s findings were based on oral or affidavit evidence or both, whether the witness was cross-examined on the point, etc. More importantly, it reflects the trend to increased deference to trial judges that has characterized civil law in Canada in the last few decades. This is not to suggest that there is no principled reason for distinguishing between oral and affidavit evidence (the reason being that the trial judge sees the witness at trial and a court of appeal does not); but Housen and its predecessors did not make that distinction in formulating the current standards of review. (Indeed the Court observed at para. 25 of Housen that there were other reasons to defer to trial judges.) Further, as we have seen, the distinction was not made in Swain itself.
[45]        I propose to address the grounds of appeal and cross-appeal, then, on the basis that while this court must defer (i.e., apply the “palpable and overriding” or “no supporting evidence” standard) to findings of fact made by the trial judge, we are not bound to defer to her exercise of discretion – i.e., we are not bound to apply the standard described in Oldman River[v.Canada (Minister of Transport) [1992] 1 S.C.R. 3] and Penner, supra.

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